Driving While Distracted in Colorado

Texting while driving laws in Colorado

By Judy Malmon, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 5, 2023

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Drivers of all ages should be aware that distracted driving is a public safety threat. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2021 alone, 3,522 fatalities in the United States involved distracted drivers.

Distracted driving can include any number of activities, including:

  • Eating
  • Changing stereo or GPS
  • Putting on makeup or adjusting clothes
  • Talking or sending text messages
  • Posting on social media

In short, distracted driving involves anything that takes your attention from the road.

If you have any lingering doubts about your own need to put the phone away when you get behind the wheel, consider that reading or sending a single text takes your eyes off the road for an average of five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that’s like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed.

Texting While Driving Laws in Colorado

In an effort to curb these behaviors and increase safety for all on the road, most states have enacted distracted driving laws and are stepping up enforcement. Twenty-six states have banned all handheld cell phone use by drivers, while 48 have banned texting while driving.

In 2017, the state of Colorado revised its texting statute to raise the fine to as much as $300. Lawmakers also changed the requirements for law enforcement to issue a ticket. It was already prohibited for Colorado drivers to text while driving. The law now requires that:

  • A police officer must actually witness a driver engaged in texting or other “manual data entry”; and
  • The driver has been driving in a reckless or “imprudent” manner.

In other words, texting when not driving carelessly (and not seen by a law enforcement officer) is legal. This makes texting while driving a secondary offense—another infraction must occur (manifestations of careless driving) in order for a violation to be charged.

Of course, there are those who would claim that texting while operating a motor vehicle is in itself a careless act. The idea behind the change was to emphasize the behavior that actually creates danger on the road rather than criminalize sending a message while pulled over to the side of the road or while stopped at a light.

The updated law appears certain to invite challenge to a texting-while-driving citation. Critics cite concerns that believing it’s OK to text as long as no one sees will foster risky behavior.

Distracted Drivers Under 18 Years Old

Coloradan drivers under 18 may not use cell phones at all while driving except in an emergency.

Unlike many other states, under Colorado law, there are no special provisions related to school bus drivers regarding the use of cell phones or mobile devices while driving.

Penalties for Distracted Driving in Colorado

Citation for texting while driving will be prosecuted as a Class 2 misdemeanor, subject to a fine of $300.

Violation of the prohibition against under-18 use of a cell phone while driving is a Class A traffic infraction, subject to a fine of $50 for a first offense, and $100 for a subsequent offense.

Sleep-Deprived Driving in Colorado

Another threat to road safety is a condition dubbed “drowsy driving.”

Studies and highway safety statistics have long demonstrated that driving in a state of extreme fatigue has parallels to drunk driving—and virtually every driver has experienced the state of momentarily nodding off.

National Institutes of Health researchers found that not sleeping for 20 hours or more causes cognitive and motor impairments comparable to a blood alcohol content of .05 percent to 0.1 percent. The precise impact of drowsy driving is difficult to measure, but estimates are that fatigue contributed to as many as 684 fatal car crashes in 2021 alone.

The Difficulty of Proving Drowsy Driving

While many believe that enacting criminal penalties for sleep-deprived driving will help raise awareness and fuel prevention efforts, prosecution—even where statutes are in place—remains limited due to virtually insurmountable proof issues.

The driver is typically the only one to know how long they’ve been awake, and unlike a blood alcohol test for drinking, there is no way to test someone’s level of fatigue. While Colorado has been noted as one of the top states for sleepy driving, to date, it has no specific laws addressing this situation.

Steps to Prevent Drowsy Driving

You can take steps to prevent drowsy driving by recognizing the risk. The National Sleep Foundation lists several warning signs that you are too drowsy to drive:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Heavy eyelids
  • Frequent yawning
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Memory lapses
  • Missed road signs or exits
  • Feeling restless or irritable

Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have been involved in a distracted driving-related traffic accident and are facing criminal charges, consider using the Super Lawyers directory to contact a Colorado criminal defense attorney with experience in traffic violations as soon as possible.

If you’re thinking about initiating a civil claim arising from a distracted or drowsy driving incident, contact a Colorado personal injury attorney. Attorneys at many personal injury law firms provide free consultations to learn more about your case.

For additional information about this area of the law, see our overview of traffic violations law.

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